“Don’t Starve” is one recent game that encourages players to appreciate the real consequence of death. Image: Klei Entertainment
Show Hide image

What can “permadeath” video games teach us about suicide?

Permanence and finality in video games can help us be better at understanding, and talking about, mental health issues.

“Happy, depressed, spiteful, manic or suicidal? More Mudokons... with real emotions,” reads the back cover of the 1998 PlayStation video game Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus.

To the credit of developers Oddworld Inhabitants, its titular Oddworld series was revolutionary in its exploration of mature themes – slavery, captivity, capitalist greed, to name but a few examples – which in the Nineties was a distinguished side-step from the whimsical cartoon mascots and fluorescent fantasy worlds prevalent at the time. Oddworld was darker and thus more intriguing than most of the competition, yet how Exoddus scrutinises suicide in this instance appears to resign the deeply complex state of mind to a badge of honour, a commodity, a testament to the game’s advanced artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, this blasé characterisation of the act is a damaging indictment of a game capable of tackling sophisticated ideas.

But again, Oddworld was ahead of its time. The fact that it even considered suicide within its narrative was against the grain. Nowadays, video games are more culturally aware and the burgeoning indie renaissance the medium has enjoyed over the last few years has facilitated a more refined discourse in and around interpersonal themes, not least suicide. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight both examine mental health by placing the player in the shoes of characters suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s bleak, but naturally reflects the subject matter. Most importantly, though, it’s informative – not only for those naive or ignorant to these conditions, but for those who may be in a relatable position, although the latter should be exercised with caution. Video games can never replace professional consultation, but they can show players that they’re not alone, and this can mark the first step towards remedial treatment.   

The rise of permadeath in video games – whereby player characters die permanently in-game, or where a game must restart from the beginning should the player character die, in the absence of multiple lives or continues – has changed the way players approach games. In these instances, emotion is often the driving force when it comes to decision-making, and thus with permadeath mental state governs player action, as opposed to logical rationale.

It’s worth noting here that self-sacrifice – when players kill themselves to respawn or restart levels; or non-playable characters sacrifice themselves for the greater good/to save their companions – is different from suicide as portrayed in the above examples. Permadeath essentially forces players to consider consequence, permanence and finality within the bounds of digital landscapes.

But what about out with virtual settings – are these themes and ideas transferable to reality? An academic paper published in 2014 entitled “Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive”, co-authored by Dr Matthew Grizzard, discusses how engaging in certain virtual behaviours has scope to elicit feelings of guilt and can thus encourage prosocial real life consequences. Grizzard et al hypothesise that committing immoral behaviour in video games can lead to increased moral sensitivity in players. This would suggest a heightened sense or understanding of consequence on the part of the player, therefore I ask Dr Grizzard if this line of thought could extend to a better comprehension of suicide – both in-game and in real life.

“I think [the] question really has two parts: (1) Do video games encourage a better understanding of the finality of suicide in real life? Versus, (2) Could video games encourage a better understanding of the finality of suicide in real life?” he says. “With regard to the first question, I don’t think games necessarily encourage ideas of permanence and finality. Video games are designed to be played multiple times with death being a temporary inconvenience rather than permanent. In fact, players will sometimes even kill themselves in games when they encounter obstacles or become stuck in a game to ‘respawn’ at an earlier time point in the game. So video games, particularly popular press video games, encourage a view that death as temporary. Death is portrayed as detrimental in games, but it is not a one-way door.

“With regard to the second question – I do think games could encourage a better understanding of the finality of suicide.”

For many players, video games represent a safe place and facilitate a certain level of escapism. Reality is suspended and thus the in-game cycle of dying and respawning and restarting is part of the deal. But even in games that utilize the permadeath feature, death is often more of a hindrance than it is absolutely final, as Grizzard suggests. The games that use permadeath as their primary mechanic, such as Klei Entertainment’s 2013 hit Don’t Starve, seem to be the ones which best represent finality, encouraging players to appreciate the real consequence of death.

“As designers we work really hard to give players agency,” says Klei Entertainment founder Jamie Cheng. “Permadeath is almost ‘free’ agency, in that suddenly every action matters a whole lot more. I think players appreciate that, and as a designer it gives us a chance to show them similar scenarios over time, and how their actions can drastically change outcomes.

“Obviously emotion plays a part, but in my experience the emotion happens after the finality, not before. That is: when the player dies or a catastrophic event happens, that’s when the weight of consequence hits – but beforehand, players are simply more attuned to their actions and less frivolous.”

Although Cheng admits suicide was never something that was considered during Don’t Starve’s design process, he does point to the fact that it’s more important to consider the active adventure, as opposed to its end. I suggest that in a game which places so much emphasis on preserving life, comparisons between virtual and actual reality are more or less likely to follow.

“I’m unclear that there’s much correlation between in-game and reality,” offers Cheng. “Instead of affecting how players perceive reality, our goal is the other way around – to have a video game that mimics reality in its finality and consequence. In addition, we want players to enjoy the journey. Since the player knows that eventually they’ll lose it all, it makes more sense that the process is the interesting part, and not what you get at the end of the journey.”

It could be argued that no matter which way around these ideas are depicted, in light of what Cheng says, the end result illustrates an intrinsic link between game worlds and the real world. This would seem to play perfectly into Grizzard’s view that video games could do more in encouraging a better understanding of the finality of suicide. He points to other transformative media that tackles similar themes such as film, noting Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as a pertinent example of how powerful viewing the world through someone else’s eyes – in this example a fictitious character – can be for viewers. There’s no reason why video games can’t deliver something similar.

“Evolutionarily, play represents a safe place to practice or experience skills that we generally don’t or can’t have direct access to in the real-world for many reasons,” adds Grizzard. “Both predatory and prey animals play to learn how to survive in the wild. Human play serves similar roles, with the skills that we learn being not only related to physical attributes but also social attributes. For example, in medical schools in the US, doctors-in-training practice giving bad news to patients in ‘play’ scenarios with actors.

“These scenarios help doctors practise skills that they rarely have the opportunity to practice in the real-world in a safe environment where making mistakes has few consequences. Video games can be particularly adept at allowing the same type of play for several reasons. Primarily, the human brain doesn’t firmly distinguish between real versus mediated stimuli. Our brain reacts to mediated images in a similar fashion as it does to real images. This is why scary movies can make us jump or tearjerkers can make us cry. Video games have the potential to provide players with a rich virtual environment filled characters and stimuli that they respond to as if they were real.

“As such, games could provide a glimpse into the severe negative consequences of suicide on family members and friends. This glimpse is obviously impossible in the real world, but games have the ability to simulate it.”

Video games are in the auspicious position of not only being a persuasive, cogent and expressive medium, but, unique to any other form of media, are also interactive. Physically engaging players in two-way stories arguably puts the platform in the best position to challenge perceptions, and to explore personal, more sophisticated themes. In the grand scheme of things, video games as a medium are relatively new, thus there is no reason why this can’t or won’t continue to grow in the future.   

“Video games do have the potential,” adds Grizzard. “However, questions still remain as to whether a single play experience that associates strong consequences with suicide could overcome the more traditional ‘death is temporary’ play experiences that are generally seen in video games. These are fascinating questions, and I would be hesitant to conclude one way or the other. “As always, more research must be done.”

Research such as Grizzard’s, coupled with the rising number of video games tackling social issues, must continue. As a society, suicide has become stigmatised to the point where we seem almost scared to discuss the subject for fear of admitting failure or weakness. This is, of course, ridiculous and British culture is particularly guilty of endorsing the “stiff-upper lip” mentality that perpetuates warped machismo doctrines such as this. I’m from Glasgow and in 2012, the suicide rates in Scotland were 73 per cent greater than those of England and Wales. No one is suggesting video games can single-handed drive these statistics down, but if the medium can help encourage healthier, more enlightened conversation around the issue, then it's heading in the right direction.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed here, you can call the Samaritans free in the UK on 08457 909090, or in the US contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era